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Anatomy of a Nightscape, Episode IV: Tracked Sky, Stacked Foreground

I’ve described at length many of the techniques I use to shoot nightscapes. In this tutorial series, I’d like to keep things much shorter and pick apart some of my photos with minimal step-by-step instructions. The shot we’ll be going over this time was taken at 11,000 feet in Carson National Forest.


Camera: Canon EOS 6D
Lens: Rokinon 14mm F/2.8
Tripod: Manfrotto 190X with Ball Head
Tracker: iOptron SkyTracker v2

Figure 1: Setup used to shoot this nightscape, minus the L-bracket.

Not mentioned in this list is about another 30 lbs of backpacking gear, food, and water, for a total pack weight of more than 40 lbs, plus a good pair of hiking boots and some treking poles. This isn’t a huge amount of weight to carry around at lower elevations, but above 11,000 feet, expect it to keep your heart rate around 150 when you’re moving uphill. Don’t try this without doing some serious conditioning first!


Planning: SkySafari 5
Shooting: Polar FinderDSLRController
Editing: Hugin, Adobe Lightroom 6, GIMP 2.10.4


About a quarter-mile upriver from Rio Quemado Falls, New Mexico. This site was tough to get to as it required six miles of backpacking with heavy packs uphill to our final camp site at 11,400 feet. There has been so much snow this year that the water table comes right up to ground level here, soaking through my boots the first time I stepped into the meadow. I was glad to have brought my crocs along to wear during the shoot so my boots could dry out overnight! I can’t stress enough how important it is to plan your shot ahead of time, taking into account these sorts of things.

Figure 2: Quemado Mountain, from the meadow I shot the nightscape with. 8-shot panorama taken with a Canon EOS 6D and a Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 lens.


  1. Check SkySafari to see where/when the MilkyWay should rise.
  2. Find a spot in the meadow with no obstructions.
  3. Wait for dark!
  4. Set up tripod and mount up the SkyTracker with ballhead attached.
  5. Attach camera to ballhead.
  6. Roughly frame the shot with the SkyTracker pointed north.
  7. Polar align SkyTracker, adjust ballhead, reframe, repeat, until desired framing is achieved with good polar alignment.
  8. Set tracker to 1X tracking rate, keeping the tracker turned off.
  9. Wait for Milky Way to get into position.
  10. Connect phone to camera via WiFi, then start up DSLRController app.
  11. Set lens to F/2.8, ISO to 6400, and camera to Bulb mode.
  12. Turn tracker on.
  13. Shoot a single one-minute exposure for the sky.
  14. Turn tracker off.
  15. Shoot 5 four-minute exposures for the foreground.
    – This is going to take 20 minutes.
    – You might want to retreat to your tent to stay warm for this part!
  16. Back at home, edit sky shots and foreground shots in Lightroom as desired.
    – Make sure the shot white balance settings are the same between the sky and the foreground or things might look weird when you merge them together.
  17. Export Lightroom edits to TIFF format.
  18. Align sky and foreground shots using Hugin’s align_image_stack sub-program.
  19. Stack foreground shots to reduce noise using the stacking program of your choosing.
    – I wrote my own, but DSS and Sequator are two programs that can do the job just fine.
  20. Merge sky and foreground stack using this technique in GIMP.
  21. Export composite GIMP image to TIFF.

Figure 3: Final edit of my Quemado Mountain Meadow Milkyway shot. Prints available.

Final Thoughts

Shooting this shot felt a little backwards because I usually stack the sky and not the foreground, but the technique works to remove noise no matter what the subject matter is. It allowed me to get much better exposure on the foreground while removing the thermal noise that comes with such long (4-minute) shots. I shied away from stacking the sky because of how many trees there were. Perhaps next time I’ll attempt to stack both the foreground and the sky. In either case, I’m really happy with the final result!

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